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What Can Prior Natural Disasters Teach Chinese Public Companies?

By Anthony W. Basch, Corporate & Public Finance

先前的自然灾害能给与中国上市公司什么启示?

What Can Prior Natural Disasters Teach Chinese Public Companies?

2020年1月30日,美国证券委员会(“SEC”)主席Jay Clayton声明他已指示SEC调查现发病毒对SEC合规事宜的当前影响。 虽然该声明没有承诺SEC会为上市公司和其他受影响方提供合规要求方面的宽限,但也给与了有宽限可能性的希望。SEC是如何对待美国其他自然灾害带来的影响可能有助于各个公司了解当前病毒紧急状况对其自身合规报告义务的影响。

上市公司对提交合规报告截止日期的最大疑问之一是,如果逾期提交是否会影响他们使用货架注册声明的资格或股东依赖144规则的能力。事实是,如果公司合规报告义务被视为“逾期”,则其提交计划中的注册声明的资格可能会延迟一年,并且根据144规则如果公司的合规报告义务不是当前报告状态,那些持有非注册股票的股东是无法出售其股票的。

一般而言,SEC不会为个别公司提供其证券法报告义务截止日期的延期和通融。SEC通常不会出于其认为在上市公司或其他相关市场参与者的控制和了解范围内的原因向公司提供宽限及延期。SEC本身的指导意见说,报告义务合规要求的豁免“只有在非常有限的特殊情况下才给予”。此类豁免请求必须提交SEC首席律师办公室审查。我们事务所已经就目前的紧急情况与SEC首席法律顾问办公室进行沟通并被告知他们目前正在研究这一问题。截至本备忘录之日,SEC尚未公布关于现发病毒是否将作为向个别公司提供延缓报告义务的依据的政策决定。

但事实证明,当涉及到自然灾害时,SEC还是比较开明的。在前几次发生自然灾害时,SEC对上市公司合规报告期限给与过一定的额外延期。例如,2018年10月7日袭击佛罗里达州的第五类飓风“迈克尔”飓风在2018年10月16日结束。在该飓风结束的当天,SEC宣布对上市公司、投资公司、会计师、转让代理人、市政顾问和其他受飓风影响的公司给与合规要求截止期限的延期。从SEC延期通知日期是在飓风迈克尔结束当日发出来看,在目前的病毒情况下,中国的上市公司还没有看到此类的延期通知是正常的。一旦SEC更全面地理解了当前病毒状况及影响,它有可能会发出额外声明。出于这个原因,我们建议公司继续留意形势的发展。

当时针对于迈克尔飓风的影响,SEC延长了受影响的上市公司的货架申报资格以及股东在144规则下的资格,此延长声明是基于这些公司在飓风发生当日其报告义务状态是当前并按时的,那么该公司在2018年11月23日或之前提交的任何必需的报告被视为是当前并按时的。换句话说,任何自然灾害是帮不了那些在灾害发生之前就已处于报告义务逾期状态的公司。另一点是,该延期包括了SEC认为受影响公司需要补交报告必要的额外时间,所以该延期比当时灾害本身持续时间更长。尽管迈克尔飓风仅持续了一周,但它对公司的影响度在公司恢复正常运营后才有一定认知,SEC正是因为清楚这点, 所以给与了额外的延期时间。该次申报延期准许的另一个特点是,SEC表示,一些公司可能“为了遵守联邦证券法的要求而需要额外或不同的协助,因此鼓励这些公司与委员会工作人员联系。委员会的工作人员将根据其特定事实的性质,逐案解决这些以及任何与披露有关的问题。” 这种基于事实的分析,如果在当前的情况下适用,可以说明湖北省一带的公司能申请比起海南一带的公司更超长一些的期限宽容及SEC有关方面的协助和支持。

虽然SEC在飓风和其他自然灾害的情况下延长了合规报告义务期限,但在非典时期它并没有这么做。虽然非典确实与目前的病毒流行相似,但有几个原因表明为什么SEC没有提供延期。 最重要的一点是,非典发生在2003年,当时来自中国的在美国上市的公司要少得多。2003年,中国在所有市场上的上市公司不到1300家而现在在美国上司公司的数量是那时的三倍多并且这数量还在增加。由于数量的原因,2003年非典对美国市场的影响不如现在病毒影响那么显著。此外,由于当前危机对中国上市企业影响较大,证券市场服务专业人士和受影响企业更有可能向SEC寻求援助。SEC在决策时确实会听取投资者、公司和专业人士的担忧所以积极和SEC沟通是有必要的。

目前我们不能保证SEC是否会给与上市公司任何延期批准,或者是否会给予与其他重大自然灾害相同的额外延期。 对于目前来说我们建议上市公司尽最大努力满足正常递交报告义务期限的要求。SEC在听取将受到影响的公司的意见,并在努力寻求公平的解决方案以平衡公司的压力和投资者的需求。 受当前病毒突发事件影响的任何公司都应尽早联系其律师和其他服务提供商以开始讨论合规申报义务事宜。 除了合规申报义务事宜外,公司还应尽早讨论即将需递交的季报,年报和定期报告中可能需要包括的现发病毒对运营影响的披露。

On January 30, 2020, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton directed the SEC to look into the current impact of the coronavirus outbreak on SEC compliance matters. While this announcement falls short of a commitment to provide hardship exemptions to issuers and others affected by the virus, it provides some hope that such relief could be coming. A look at the way the U.S. has handled other natural disasters from an SEC regulatory perspective may be helpful to companies concerned about the impact of the current crisis on their own reporting obligations.

One of the biggest questions public companies have about filing deadlines is whether failing to file within a filing deadline will affect their eligibility to use shelf registration statements or their shareholders’ ability to rely on Rule 144. If a company is considered “untimely” in its public reporting obligations, the eligibility to file planned registration statements may be delayed by a year, and sales of stock are not permitted by certain holders of unregistered stock under Rule 144 when a company is not current in its public reporting obligations.

As a general matter, the SEC is extremely reluctant to provide extensions or relief to individual companies as to their securities law filing obligations. The SEC generally will not grant filing relief to companies for reasons it considers to be within the control and knowledge of the issuers or other relevant market participants. The SEC’s own guidance says that form eligibility requirements waivers “are granted only under very limited circumstances”. Such requests must be submitted to the SEC’s Office of Chief Counsel for review. We have spoken with the Office of Chief Counsel in connection with the current emergency, and they are currently studying the issue. As of the date of this memo, no policy decisions have been announced about whether coronavirus will be a basis for granting filing relief to individual companies.

But the SEC has proven to be more open to extensions when it comes to natural disasters. In several cases, the SEC has issued rules that provide additional extensions beyond what would otherwise be permitted to the companies. For example, Hurricane Michael formed on October 7, 2018, hit Florida as a Category Five hurricane and cleared on October 16, 2018. On the day it cleared, the SEC announced regulatory relief for publicly traded companies, investment companies, accountants, transfer agents, municipal advisers and others affected by the hurricane. As Hurricane Michael’s end date coincided with the date of the relief notice, the lack of an announcement should not surprise public companies in China yet. Once the impact of the virus is more well understood, we may see additional guidance from the SEC. For this reason we recommend that companies continue to monitor the situation as it develops.

In the case of Hurricane Michael, the SEC extended shelf eligibility for affected filers and Rule 144 eligibility for shareholders by saying that if the company was current and timely in its Exchange Act filings as of the time of the hurricane, it would continue to be considered current and timely if it filed any required report on or before November 23, 2018. In other words, the natural disaster did not forgive companies that were late as of the time of the natural disaster. The other effect is that the extension granted the necessary additional time the SEC considered appropriate for companies to remedy filing delays, which was actually longer than the period of the emergency itself. Although the natural disaster in that case lasted for only one week, the extension recognized that filers would need more time, as the full impact of the disaster would become known only after people got back to work. The SEC also stated that some companies might “require additional or different assistance in their efforts to comply with the requirements of the federal securities laws and therefore are encouraged to contact Commission staff. The Commission staff will address these and any disclosure-related issues on a case-by-case basis in light of their fact-specific nature.” This sort of fact-based analysis could, if applied in the current situation, justify a Hubei-based company to request additional assistance beyond what a Hainan-based company might require.

Although the SEC has been willing to grant regulatory relief in the case of hurricanes and other natural disasters, it did not grant relief in the case of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. While SARS is similar to the current coronavirus epidemic, there are several reasons that the SEC may not have granted relief in that case. Most significantly, SARS occurred in 2003, when far fewer companies from China were public in the United States. In 2003, China had fewer than 1,300 public companies on all markets. That number is now more than three times as high. The increase in the number of Chinese companies public on US markets is even more dramatic. For this reason, the impact of SARS on US markets was not as significant in 2003 as the impact of the coronavirus promises to be in 2020. In addition, due to the greater impact of the current crisis on China-based companies, service professionals and affected companies are more likely to reach out to the SEC to seek assistance. Such calls are warranted, and the SEC does listen to the concerns of investors, companies and professionals in making decisions.

Right now, there is no guarantee whether the SEC will grant relief or whether it will grant as much additional relief as it has for other significant natural disasters. For now, all companies should use their best efforts to meet their normal filing deadlines. But the SEC is listening to companies that will be affected and is diligently seeking a fair solution that balances companies’ pressures against investors’ needs. Any company affected by the current health emergency should reach out to its counsel and other service providers as early as possible to begin to discuss filing matters for planning purposes. In addition to filing issues, companies should discuss the additional disclosures that may be required in upcoming quarterly, annual and periodic reports to reflect the impact the coronavirus is expected to have on operations.


The contents of this publication are intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts and circumstances. Copyright 2020.